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Monthly Archives: February 2014

Nature

Jack Foley has ruined nature. Or at least, he’s ruined Naturejack foley

Foley, who died in 1967 at the age of 76, was a film editor at Universal Studios, where he developed the process of adding sound effects to movies in the editing stage.

You can see his name, turned eponymous, in the credits of any movie: The Foley artist is the one who matches the sounds to the action.

When you hear a dying thug breathe his last wheezy gasp, or a potential victim step on a squeaky floorboard or snap a twig underfoot, it is the Foley artist who put that sound there in post-production.

Which is fine for an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, with its explosions and ammunition magazines being snapped into their Uzis with a click so solid even a Chevy ad has to smile with envy. But the Foley art is less helpful when PBS shows us row of ducks swimming in the Okefenokee. comic

Then the ducks always make a sound like a guy wiggling his fingers in a tub of tap water, with a microphone held a few inches away. It has ruined Nature, Wild America and every other filmed nature show on PBS or the Discovery Channel. duckling

The obviousness and artificiality of that wretched tinkle is for me like fingernails on a blackboard.

I know the reason for avoiding the real sounds of the real ducks: The camera, with its close-ups, can effectively edit out anything but the ducks; the microphone can’t edit. Along with the ducks, we will hear the ook-la-roo of the redwing, the overhead jet and perhaps even the whirring of the camera. It is too much aural information and can be confusing.

So standard procedure in nature films is to work with silent filmstock and add the sounds later. Some of these sounds are collected by technicians who tape the ducks when the blackbirds are momentarily quiet and match that sound to the film. But more commonly, sound is created by a group of sound-effects people, who work like they used to in radio days with crushed cellophane for fire and coconut halves for horses’ hooves. sound effects

Well, maybe they’re a little more sophisticated than that, but not by much.

If you want a good contrast, tune in to CBS’ Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood at about five minutes before the end on Sunday morning. Each week, it features a few minutes of nature, videotaped rather than filmed, and with the unedited sound of that moment in the wild.

You will hear not only the ducks, but the wind in the tree branches, the redwing, the grasses, occasional passing cars and airplanes, all balled up into one giant ambience.

It is the way it really sounds out there in the light of day.

After all, what we call nature is less the individual animals and plants than the interaction of the whole thing. Nature is context, if anything.

And that only underlines the basic problem, that for most Americans nature is something you see on a TV screen. Nature is a sideshow and entertainment. Cute little ducklings or sea otters vie for our attention with herds of wildebeest and salmon-fishing grizzlies. Gnu pack

Television nature, even shot in the wild, is just a technological zoo: Each animal is displayed in its own filmed cage. As with most of European culture, it is the fragments of the whole we understand best. The bigger picture eludes us.

But turn the TV off, get out of the city and then out of the car. Almost anyplace will do, it doesn’t have to be dramatic. You will hear and smell, as well as see, the great imbroglio that is nature.

It isn’t just that it is all interconnected, which it is. It isn’t just that the whole is complicated beyond comprehension, which it is.

The difference is that you are in it, a part of it. On TV, nature is something separate. TV is always behind glass.

Carole portrait

It is not unusual for my wife to finish my sentences. I used to find it slightly annoying, but after 30 years of marriage, I hardly notice it. When I do, I now find it comforting.

My wife and I have developed some kind of radio signal between us, and conversation can consist of little more than random adjectives and conjunctions:

”Do you . . .”

”OK, but then . . .”

”Of course, and I’ll . . .”

”Thursday.”

No one else knows the code.

It has happened that while watching television, she will turn toward me, and without saying anything, I will get up and take out the garbage.

Now, that’s true love.

Another time, the same gesture will empty the cat box. And neither of us will realize that no words were uttered.

I am not a believer in ESP, but this phenomenon has reinforced for me a belief that marriage is a kind of magic. A magic that grows perfect through practice.

For too many young people, marriage is seen as merely an extension of dating, only for a very long time and with only one person. Put that way, it hardly sounds enticing. An endless job interview.

For many others, especially for younger women sensitized to the very real sins of the patriarchy, there is grave suspicion of the whole notion of giving yourself up for the other, which is seen as the effacing of individuality. This suspicion prevents the kind of surrender that makes a good marriage.

It is no wonder the divorce rate is stratospheric.

It is a hard lesson to learn: To lose yourself is to find yourself.

It isn’t for the wife to be subservient to the husband, but for each to surrender to the other: This is the equality of marriage.

The problem is that at some level we are unwilling to admit to ourselves that we are incomplete. Feminism, on one side, has taught that a woman should not be dependent on a man. And men are taught never to be dependent on anyone. We suffer as islands.

And all around me, I see these self-sufficient people looking for love in a mirror. They look for someone who shares their interests, beliefs, personality quirks and housekeeping habits. In short, they look for themselves with different plumbing.

And when they get what they are looking for, they find it is no more than they already possess. Boredom and disappointment are unavoidable.

Magic happens when you find your opposite, not your clone.

It is a plus and minus charge that makes a nuclear family. The yin and yang of opposition.

We admit this when we say, ”Opposites attract,” but deny it when we say, ”Birds of a feather flock together.” Flocking is fine for guys sitting at a bar watching a ballgame and pulling for the same team. But marriage is more than a brew and a point spread.

In Plato’s Symposium, the comic playwright Aristophanes explains that human beings were once round with four arms and four legs, but that an angry Zeus split them in half. Love, he says, is each half’s desire to find its missing opposite.

This is a nice tale but only part of the story. The reality isn’t quite that static. Finding your other half isn’t the conclusion of love, but the beginning of a long process of growth, and it is change and growth that keep the marriage vital.

When we make mates of our opposites, they can prod us on to new things and deeper understandings. It keeps life fresh, challenging and intense.

That ”ripening” is the core of the magic in marriage.

Which is why I always advise people not to look for someone who always agrees with them, but to find a ”worthy opponent.”

Which is what my wife is to me. She has a personality strong enough to withstand mine. When I press, there is resistance.

If I try to get away with something, if I try to do less than my best, she is there as my conscience, prodding me to be better.

If I carelessly do something that might hurt someone’s feelings, she is there to make me less careless.

We have had some great fights, but they were never pointless. They always led somewhere. Neither of us wins these arguments, because we both learn from them.

The perfect coat of arms for marriage is an apple surrounded by the words ”Eros” and ”Eris.” These are the Greek deities of erotic love and discord. The two make a lovely couple.

I am loud, she is soft-spoken.

I tend to think things through analytically. My wife is more intuitive.

While I think straightforward, my wife thinks sideways. Together, we create a waltz.

This is my valentine to her.

2001 Smeslov meeting

It sounded like a great idea. ”We’re having a movie party. Not whole movies, just scenes. Bring a few DVDs over and we’ll fast-forward to your favorite scenes.”

You can learn a lot about people from what they choose. We watched everything from Steve Martin singing about pain and dentistry to Max von Sydow playing chess with death. BERGMAN BOGART

There are a lot of familiar scenes. They are almost the soundtrack to American lives: ”It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

Or, ”I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

But two scenes had the profoundest effect on me. Totally opposite in effect and both brilliant. And seeing them together made an important point about movies, art and life. brando back seat

In The Third Man (1949), Orson Welles has been selling tainted penicillin on the black market in postwar Vienna. As a fugitive, he meets his American friend Joseph Cotten in an amusement park. As they ride the huge Ferris wheel above the city, Cotten asks disgustedly, ”Have you ever seen any of your victims?” third man welles

”Victims? You’re being melodramatic,” Welles replies. They look down at the antlike people below them on the ground. ”Tell me, would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 Pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spend? Free of income tax.”

When they descend to earth, Welles rationalizes, with a con man’s glint in his eyes: ”After all, it’s not that awful. You know what the fellow says: ‘In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed. But they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’ ”

It is a wonderful scene. Visually, it is stunning, with the city turned into a stark black-and-white toy below them. Verbally, it is stark, pithy writing.

But no one speaks that persuasively in real life. Writers do that; they have the time to. All those witty retorts that come to you as you descend the stairs are used by the writer as if they occurred during the conversation.

But in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), there is an odd intrusion of real life, clabbering in its banality. 2001 council room

Government bureaucrat Dr. Heywood Floyd visits the moon to speak to other bureaucrats. He is introduced: ”I know you’ll all want to join with me in welcoming our distinguished friend and colleague from the National Council of Astronautics, Dr. Heywood Floyd. Now, Dr. Floyd has come up specially to Clavius to be with us today, and before the briefing, I know he would like to have a few words with you. Dr Floyd?”

The words are flat and empty.

”Thank you, Dr. Halvorsen. Hi, everybody. Nice to be back with you. Well . . . first of all, I bring a personal message from Dr. Howell. . .” And he continues with this palaver for some minutes, ending with, ”The purpose of my visit here is to gather additional facts and opinions on the situation and to prepare a report to council recommending when and how the news should eventually be announced.”

John Kerry could have said those words. There are a few forced laughs, a lot of awkward silences and polite applause at the end of the speech, as if Floyd had said something worth hearing.

It is a scene that most people snooze through, just as the bureaucrats would in real life. But it and all the ”intense inane” of the first three-quarters of the film set up the splendor of the final psychedelic trip with its light show and surrealism.

It took guts on the part of Kubrick to play up that banality, to insert real life into an art form normally spruced up for its audience with witty rejoinders and double entendres.

And great art to be so artless.

adam and eve

OK, so then what is the “canon,” with which we should all be familiar?

There are scores of lists, put forth by scores of people, ranging from insightful critics to close-minded boobs (Yes, Bill Bennett, I’m talking about you). Such lists usually share the usual suspects: Here’s Hamlet, there’s War and Peace, and over there is the Recherche of Marcel Proust. All of them worthy of your deepest attention and capable of inciting the most delightful pleasure.

But as I’ve written before, the purpose of engaging with the canon of Western culture is to understand who your grandparents were, whose cultural DNA you were born to — the common inheritance of all of us in the modern world, our Adams and Eves.

Through most of my youth and into my adult life, my version of the list has grown and grown. I have, after all, at least 50 films on my Top Ten list. I could not do without hundreds of books I have read, paintings I have seen in the flesh, music I know by heart.

But, as I have grown old, I have jettisoned more and more baggage. “Simplify, simplify,” Thoreau said. I’ve given away books, CDs, DVDs. I’m tempted to dump even more. Those that were important, I have internalized; those I want to keep are those I reread and reread.

Under even those, however, is a foundation level, the cultural footings on which I have built my intellectual life, and that the civilization I have inherited was founded upon, almost as its Constitution.

So, I am proposing a canon. A very short one, but an essential one.

First, there is Homer. Everyone should have read the Iliad, at least. The Odyssey is initially more fun — or at least the chapters that chronicle the wanderings of Odysseus — but the Iliad is one of the founding documents of Western civilization and provides a necessary backdrop for everything that has come since.

I reread the Iliad about once a year. I try different translations, because any bit of ancient Greek I used to study has evaporated. The newest translations are usually the best, not because they are more literary, but because they speak the language I use. Older translations sniff of their age, smelling of linsey-woolsey or gaberdeen. I can sense the antimacassar oil on the Lang-Leaf-Myers translation. I sense the Cold War in the Lattimore.

So, the Robert Fagles translation is my standard, although the most recent re-read was in the even newer Stephen Mitchell version.

In Homer, you find the myths that have been re-used and re-energized in all the books written since, that outline the archetypes, give us the parameters of story and narration. The scope of Homer is the widest: from the bee’s tongue to the planet’s motions among the stars.

This is all beside the wonderful enjoyment gotten from reading it, 2500 years after he (or she) set it down.

The second book in my canon is the Bible. Not for any religious reason; I’m completely an atheist and have no use for religion. But the Bible is, like Homer, one of the founding documents and underlies all that has followed. I may wish otherwise, and may often wonder if the Bible wasn’t really authored by a group of people who have spent too long out under the desert sun. It may have been written by white bearded patriarchs under the influence of sunstroke, but they are our grizzled patriarchs.

There are two important considerations when approaching the Bible.

The first is the translation. The King James version is the primary one, and it is the organ-pipe tones of the KJV that underpin our own ideas of language, of majesty, of ritual and solemnity. It is the KJV you hear behind the sentences of Melville and Thoreau, behind the speeches of Martin Luther King.

But the King James is also miserably out-of-date, with usages that are no longer current and oftentimes either misleading or downright incomprehensible. So, a more modern translation may make the stories of the Bible easier to assimilate.

Even so, I prefer mixing the King James and a modern translation with an interlinnear word-for-word translation that demonstrates how much any translation of the Bible is de facto an interpretation. I have valued greatly the Everett Fox version of The Five Books of Moses from the Schocken Bible. Any version of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles is a moving target.

The second thing is that you should read the whole Bible, not just the familiar parts. Some of it is heavy slogging, but you should have read the whole thing. It’s one of the best ways to counteract the baleful influence of all those fundamentalists that would have you believe only their way. You see how they pick and choose only the parts they want and that reinforce their prejudices. You will be astonished at how many things are held to be “an abomination.” You will scratch your head over most of them.

The Bible stories are the Semitic balance to the Hellenic myths and between the two, they are the parents of all that followed.

Finally, in my canon, are the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare. Ideally, one should see them on stage, in an excellent production (since a mediocre production can be the kiss of death for someone whose language is a florid and baroque as Shakespeare’s), but the fact is that it is as text on a page that Shakespeare has most influenced the course of Western Civ. We read Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and their words continue to astonish the attentive reader with their fire, their brilliance, their wit, and their expansiveness. The “sirrahs” and “prithees” may certainly feel dated, but everything else is bursting with life.

It was after a long-ago divorce that I first decided that if I was going off into exile, I needed to pack only three books: The Iliad, the Bible and a complete Shakespeare, and that somehow, if the world were destroyed all around me, I could resurrect an entire civilization with just these three.

And we would see everything that followed.

"Michael Jackson and Bubbles" by Jeff Koons, and Elgin Marbles figure

“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons, and Elgin Marbles figure

In 1632, the young English poet John Milton, just out of college, took up residence at his father’s country estate at Horton, near Windsor. And for the next six years he managed to read everything that had ever been written and was extant, in all languages living and dead, that a European scholar of the time might have heard of. That included literature, history, biography, philosophy, science, mathematics — the whole throatful of it. milton cigar

Everything that had ever been written.

It boggles the mind. Today, we cannot even keep up with the magazines we subscribe to; most of human knowledge falls off the edge of the Earth, where the map of our erudition shows nothing but serpents. reading the oed

We can never achieve what Milton did; it’s foolish to even try. But shouldn’t we attempt at least some sketch of what was fully painted for the poet? There have been recent books by writers who have read every article in the Encyclopedia Britannica (The Know-It-All, One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, A.J. Jacobs, 2004), The Oxford English Dictionary (Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, Ammon Shea, 2008), or the equivalent of the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf (Great Books, David Denby, 1996), but such ventures are little more than stunts.

To absorb 5,000 years of human culture requires more than memorizing almanacs or dictionaries. It means to have a grounding in the art, literature, theater, music and architecture of our ancestors.

Of course, most of human knowledge, at least in ordinary life, in mass or pop culture and in our individual autobiographies is utterly trivial, and it would be a crime to stuff our brains with it.

But not all knowledge in this information age is trivial. There is still a core of useful literature — and I use the word in the broadest possible sense — that it behooves us to be acquainted with.

It is unfortunate that there is an argument over this. In the imbecilic culture wars that currently ravage the intellectual countryside, the lines are drawn between ignorant armies.

On one side, you find right-wing reactionary fossils fighting to maintain the canon of mainly European classics. On the other side, there is a cadre of victimization that wants to eliminate anything written by dead white males.

A pox on both their houses.

Milton didn’t have to worry about the canon. For him, the canon encompassed everything he could possible encounter.

Since that time, though, we have had to become more selective. Those items we have, as a culture, thought worth perpetuating we have called ”classics” and added them to the list — the canon — of ”required reading.”

But we misunderstand the very idea of culture if we believe the world froze solid with the publication of the Harvard Five Foot Shelf.

Corneille

Corneille

The canon is a garden that must be weeded and tended, and each season may call forth a different harvest.

The problem with the conservative view is that it values a former ”golden age” that our own time never measures up to. It is a sentimental view of life and history, and deaf to the fact that we live now, not in the imaginary ”then.” It is the voice of Cato, of Corneille, of William Bennett — a man of whom it is said he cannot sleep a-nights if he suspects someone, somewhere is having fun.

It is a view of an idealized perfection that we have disastrously fallen short of. It is one form of imbecility.

The problem from the other side is an egalitarianism that is just as moronic. According to them, nothing is better than anything else. Either it is merely a question of personal taste, or it is one of cultural identity.

By their standards, it is elitist to prefer Pablo Neruda to Rod McKuen. Let them, I say, let them renew their subscriptions to Us magazine.

They can deconstruct its gossip to death and find the parallels with Plutarch — if they only knew who Plutarch was.

To consider one “text” more important than another, for them, is to promote colonialism and the subjugation of the downtrodden.

Hence, they judge not by esthetic considerations — it’s all just personal taste to them — but rather by politics.

For them, politics overwhelms aesthetics — overwhelms reason, emotion, common sense and experience. For them, everything has a party line. Ah, but they forget, politics answers no question worth asking.

It also worries me that behind the masks of intellectual argument, I sense a fascism on each side — at the very least a certain priggishness to both sides that any reasonable human finds dangerous.

At bottom, the problem is that both sides make the mistake of believing the canon immutable and fixed. They see the canon as an end, one side blindly despising it and the other defending it like Texans at the Alamo.

But the canon, properly seen, is a beginning, not an end; a foundation, not a roof.

It is the ABC of cultural literacy, the cardinal numbers of thought.

One used to hear the warning that when you have sex, you are having sex with everyone your partner has ever slept with. Well, when you read a book, you are also reading everything that the author read. When you hear music, you also hear everything that composer heard.

Culture is the slow accumulation of thoughts and habits. To read Melville is to hear the diapason of King James under the rich melody of the prose. Every author is the product of multiplier and multiplicand: the writer’s imagination and the long road of history leading to his standing on the curb with his thumb out.

The fact is, we cannot read everything, the way Milton did. We must be more selective. Suggestions for that selective offering is what we call the canon. But it changes constantly: It now includes James Baldwin and Toni Morrison; it includes Derek Wolcott and Yukio Mishima;  The Beatles and Duke Ellington.

The Laocoon

The Laocoon

How can you understand Jacques Derrida without standing firmly on the firm ground of Kant’s a priori? How can you read Isabel Allende without sensing the spirituality of Calderon behind her words?

How can you understand Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles if you don’t already have the Elgin Marbles in your system? You can’t. How can you get the joke on the back of countless Yellow Pages if you don’t know the Laocoon?

Certainly, the old rationale for learnedness remains: These are great writers, profound thinkers and brilliant painters and sculptors and we cannot consider ourselves educated without their acquaintance. Knowing them is its own excuse. But even more important is that when you hear the echoes in a piece of art, see its ancestry, the piece resonates. Resonance is what gives art and literature is power. kane

Like the mirror scene in Citizen Kane, one man is multiplied into an army. Like Isaac Newton said, if we see further, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. It is a wise man who knows his parents.

carmen death

Opera has an ABC. They are Aida, Boheme and Carmen. No regional opera company ever went broke programming these blockbusters. They are all extremely popular and well-known.

Georges Bizet

Georges Bizet

Carmen, especially. Perhaps too well known.

We all know that the gypsy Carmen seduces the not-too-bright army corporal, Don Jose, and then dumps him for the flashy matador Escamillo. Death ensues while crowds cheer in the bull ring.

We hum along with the tunes: the habanera, the toreador song, the boys mocking the soldiers and their tune. The suite from the score was once one of the most programmed pieces of light classical music, rivaling Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and Grieg’s Peer Gynt. One of Sir Thomas Beecham’s “lollipops.”

The opera comes from a novella written in 1845 by the French Romantic author Prosper Merimee. And like a movie made from a book, a few things are changed for the sake of drama.carmen conductor

Here are some things you probably don’t know about Georges Bizet’s Carmen:

1. Bizet’s librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, gave their bullfighter a major promotion. In Merimee’s book, he is not the noble matador, but a mere picador, a stripling named Lucas.habanera score

2. The famous Habanera (“L’amour est un oiseau rebelle“) was an afterthought.carmen painting

The mezzo hired to sing the part of Carmen didn’t like the aria Bizet had first written. He tried 10 times to come up with something, eventually writing the single most famous tune from the opera. Or did he? Turns out, he stole the melody from an earlier tune, called El Arreglito, by Sebastian Yradier who had only recently died. Yes, Bizet plagiarized the melody. When the score to Carmen was published, Bizet had to add a note acknowledging his source.

3. The first recording of Carmen (1908) was sung in German. “Liebe ist wie ein wilder Vogel.” Oy.

4. More than 60 films have been made of the story. Oddly, the first 17 were silent films. Silent opera is rather like dancing on the radio. That list of silent films includes one by Cecil B. DeMille, from 1915, which was based on the original novel because the producers didn’t want to pay the rights to the opera and chose the public-domain novel instead. They then changed the book’s plot to match the opera’s. Among the silent Carmens were Theda Bara (1915, directed by Raoul Walsh), Pola Negri (1918, directed by Ernst Lubitsch) and Delores Del Rio (1927, also directed by Walsh).carmen saura

5. Recent Carmens tend to stretch the story or the music. Like Beyonce in Carmen: A Hip Hopera (2001), or the 1983 Carlos Saura masterpiece, which turns it into a flamenco dance. Also on the list: Carmen on Ice (1990); Karmen Gei (2001), which sets the story in Senegal; Carmen Jones (1954), with Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte; and most recently the powerful South African township version, U-Carmen eKhayalitsha. Check it out on DVD.